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Teachers fight back against Denver Public Schools in court

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That's not a huge number, but it was enough first to drive DPS and the union into arbitration and then to spur the lawsuit. It also raised concern among state lawmakers, two of whom introduced a bill in February aimed at stopping the practice of dismissing nonprobationary teachers without cause.

But the bigger question for students and parents, say the teachers, may be this: In its enthusiasm to implement Senate Bill 191, is DPS also getting rid of experienced teachers who could help struggling kids?

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Senate Bill 191 was controversial from the start. Introduced late in the 2010 legislative session by Senator Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat and a former principal at a high school in Adams County, it was aimed at developing a better way to evaluate teachers' effectiveness and at cutting them loose when they don't measure up, regardless of tenure. The bill pitted superintendents, business leaders and school reform groups against teachers' unions, most of which were staunchly opposed. The biggest fights were waged over how to evaluate teachers and what consequences they should face if they didn't pass muster. Opponents didn't like that the bill based half of a teacher's evaluation on student academic growth, and they struggled with the concept of punishing teachers who work with challenging kids. The legislative battle was heated and emotional; more than one lawmaker broke down in tears.

A provision of the bill that got less attention had nothing to do with teacher effectiveness. Instead, it laid out what should happen when a teacher loses her position because of a drop in enrollment, a "reduction in building," a school closure or a school turnaround (a strategy in which drastic measures — such as firing the staff — are taken to improve a school's test scores). The provision says that if a nonprobationary teacher is displaced, she has one year or two hiring cycles to find a "mutual-consent" position (one in which both the teacher and the principal agree on the placement) or be put on unpaid leave. She's allowed to keep job hunting — and if she eventually finds a position in her district, she'll be hired back at her old salary and benefits level.

Boasberg was a fan of Senate Bill 191, as were most of the DPS Board of Education members. (A vocal minority was opposed). The superintendent even testified at the State Capitol in support of the bill. Although he spoke of the need for a better teacher-evaluation system, DPS was already coming up with one on its own: Three months earlier, the district had received a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to revamp the way it measured teacher effectiveness. The argument for the revamp was that the old system didn't do enough to weed out bad teachers. It allowed for only two ratings — satisfactory and unsatisfactory — and in DPS, about 99 percent of teachers were rated satisfactory.

At the Capitol, Boasberg also emphasized the dangers of forced placement. By that time, DPS was already taking steps to restrict its use: Before Senate Bill 191 passed, Boasberg encouraged the school board to vote to limit the use of forced placement — or "direct placement," as it's officially known — in the district's lowest-performing schools. "It's a serious thing to consider, because we're very clear that we don't want direct placement, period," Boasberg told the board at a meeting on April 22, 2010 — ten days after Senate Bill 191 was introduced. "I think that's what the motion says very clearly. But the question is, until direct placement is eliminated...what do you do?"

It turned out that DPS didn't have to wait long. After a contentious debate, the legislature approved Senate Bill 191 and Governor Bill Ritter signed it into law on May 20, 2010.

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Just four months later, Masters became one of the first DPS teachers to be RIBed post-Senate Bill 191 when she lost her full-time position at Centennial, which was then an elementary and middle school in northwest Denver.

Masters's teaching career started in 1999, when she began substituting after suffering an injury at her previous job. She was working on a master's degree in psychology at the time, and when she finished, in 2001, several people suggested that she apply for a two-year DPS program that allows professionals with college degrees to take graduate-level courses to become licensed teachers while getting experience in the classroom. Masters focused on special education because, as a substitute, she'd enjoyed teaching summer-school classes for students with serious disabilities.

In 2004, at the age of 48, she set out to find a teaching job. It wasn't hard. "There were a million, zillion special-ed positions," she recalls. She applied for about ten and was interviewed for several of them, including a spot at Centennial. "The principal called me up right away, one hour later, and offered me the position," Masters says.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar